This is an archived version of an Instructions Project assignment I used for WRTG 3035 in Fall 2011. To view their final projects, browse the Final Instructions Projects category on the class blog.
NOTE: Additional info on this assignment was provided in class and on calendar entries.
As described on the Short Projects page, everyone will work on a short project in the genre of Instructions. You will choose one of the following formats:
- Written steps with illustrations
- Screencast tutorial (video of what appears on your computer screen)
- Video tutorial (live action demo of process)
The project must also be publishable on a web site that accepts user-generated content and that is designed to appeal to members of your specific target audience.
NOTE: If you decide to make a screencast or video tutorial, your project will be in video format. Because of the complexities involved in hosting and playing video files, you will most likely need to upload the video to a video hosting site (such as YouTube or Vimeo) in order to then embed the video on the web site where you’ve chosen to publish your instructions. But uploading the video to a hosting site does not count as “publishing” it on an established site that is visited by your target audience. You still need to pick a site to post the video on.
Skilled writers always analyze their rhetorical situation before diving into a writing project, as the factors that comprise the rhetorical situation — purpose, audience, genre, etc. — shape the nature of the document you produce.
The purpose of your instructions article is to guide members of your target audience through the steps needed to accomplish a specific task, but who exactly is included in your target audience depends on the nature of the task and the level of previous experience required.
You’ll need to define who belongs to your primary audience and determine how you can design your instructions so that this audience can find them and make effective use of them. You’ll also have a secondary audience made up of your classmates and instructor as well as the members of the community on the web site you choose to publish your instructions on.
Keep these criteria in mind as you consider topics:
- The topic you select should be appropriate for the nature and purpose of the site you’ve chosen to publish your instructions on and should easily fit into one of the site’s existing categories. The topic should also be one on which a good set of instructions does not already exist.
- Because the instructions genre is itself a form of technical writing, the topic you choose to cover in your instructions does not need to be technical in nature. But the topic should allow you the opportunity to practice writing a set of instructions you would be proud to show a future employer as a writing sample.
- The topic should not promote activity that is illegal, borderline illegal, unethical, or dangerous. The topic also should not lead a reader to do something that most people would consider irresponsible, immature, or unprofessional. (Consider that your article will be associated with the University of Colorado, given that you’re writing it for a class.)
- The topic must be one that at least three or four of your fellow classmates will be able to actually user-test, so that they can give you feedback on how well the instructions work in a real-world scenario. That means you should choose topics that most college students will be able to complete (or you should check with the class to find out who might have the necessary special equipment or knowledge to complete your task.) If no one in the class is able to user-test your instructions, you’ll need to find user testers elsewhere.
- The topic should be well-suited to the format you’ve chosen. Not every topic would work well as a screencast, for example, so think carefully about the relationship between topic, audience, and format.
- The topic should have a moderate difficulty level. Don’t choose a topic that is so easy that most people could do it without needing to look up instructions or that would only take a person a few minutes to figure out. That sort of topic won’t produce the sort of substantive instructions article you’d be proud to have in a Technical Writing portfolio to show future employers. Also don’t choose a topic that is likely to already be covered in the place the person wanting to do the task would most likely look (like the Help menu of a particular app).
- The topic should also be moderately substantial in scope, by which I mean that if you were to print it out (as an article or a transcript for a video), it might span three to five pages, give or take. The number of steps you include depends on the nature of your task, so there is no required number, but aim for at least six or seven steps. Keep in mind that each action you want your reader to take should go in a new step, with the action expressed as the opening phrase of the step, so some steps might have very little information while others have a lot. It depends on your topic.
If you’re thinking of writing an article for wikiHow, browse the site’s 18 main categories to become familiar with the options.
Also look for topics in the community’s Requested Topics,which is a good way to ensure that you’re responding to a genuine need in the community. If none of those topics appeals to you, you might try the “I want topic suggestions” box on the Write an Article page or the How to Find a Subject to Write About article.
If you choose the format of step-by-step instructions, keep a few relevant features in mind.
The most important feature is that the steps should be delivered in bulleted-list language rather than in lengthy paragraphs.
Each step should open with an action phrase that describes the action the reader should take. Action phrases start with verbs, such as: Launch your web browser or Slice the bread into 1/2″ pieces or something like that. Each time you direct readers to take a new action, start a new step.
If you need to tell readers what will happen after they follow a particular step, put that information at the end of the step rather than in a new step.
Another relevant feature is the use of screen shots, diagrams, or photos to help readers visualize each step. You might also include hyperlinks to resources that would help readers better understand more complex parts of the process.
(I’ll share additional writing tips in class and on calendar entries, as needed. You should also seek out expert advice on writing the specific kind of instructions you’ve chosen from whatever sources you deem reliable.)
The final product you will deliver will include:
- the instructions (published on the web site of your choice)
- a short report on your user testing process
- a rhetorical rationale (analysis of the decisions you made while composing your instructions, in light of your rhetorical situation)
You will post the user testing report and the rhetorical rationale, along with a link to your published instructions, on the class blog.